Connecting the unconnected needs new approaches to address an old problem

By Mortimer Hope and Herman Schepers

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals– the ‘to do list’ for the world adopted by the United Nations in 2015 – will require affordable internet access for all. To meet the challenge of affordably connecting 3.5 billion ‘unconnected’ people there is an urgent need to find new ideas and innovative approaches. While the number of fixed lines is stagnant or declining in most countries, mobile subscriber numbers continue to increase – suggesting that wireless networks will be used to connect the unconnected. Spectrum is the oxygen of wireless and the availability of this finite resource is a critical component of a country’s broadband ecosystem. Too often the policy discourse is polarised between the need for more licensed or unlicensed spectrum when addressing the ‘digital divide’. We argue that it is not a matter of either or but how both together improve connectivity.

Having worked in the mobile industry we are well aware of the benefits that licensed spectrum can bring in providing connectivity. Exclusive access rights to spectrum tends to provide certainty to mobile network operators (MNOs) that stimulates long-term investments in infrastructure. Unfortunately, this business model does not work quite so well in sparsely populated or rural areas where the economic barriers of installing new infrastructure are often too high and there is no internet or slow internet speeds are still prevalent.

In these areas unlicensed spectrum is increasingly starting to deliver affordable Internet connectivity where regulators have allowed it. Unlicensed spectrum is significantly lower in cost than licensed spectrum because there are no auction or licensed fees that must be accounted for in an operator’s business model, enabling more rapid technology development and innovative deployment scenarios. Wi-Fi is a great example of unlicensed spectrum usage and a competitive ecosystem that is stimulated by low barriers to entry. A bit more than 60% of mobile traffic is already ‘offloaded’ via Wi-Fi helping MNOs deal with exponential mobile data growth. This is where licensed and unlicensed spectrum are working together to the benefit of consumers. In addition, a number of companies are trialling creative and ambitious Wi-Fi enabled connectivity solutions using unlicensed spectrum. Examples are Microsoft’s TV White Spaces (TVWS), Facebook’s Express Wi-Fi and Google’s Loon.

Successfully closing the connectivity gap will take innovation in policy, technology and business models. Regulations that prescribe specific business models may result in less competition, poorer service and higher prices. The Internet is the enabler for the digital transformation of economies and societies. Where the policy and regulatory framework promotes new business models and partnerships, great transformative innovation can occur. The positive impact of mobile money in Africa is a great example.

The efficient allocation and coordination of spectrum use will be on many of the greatest spectrum minds as we head towards the UN’s forthcoming World Radio Communication Conference (WRC) in November 2019. At WRC-19 regulators need to make sufficient spectrum available to ensure they can provide an adequate mix of both licensed and unlicensed spectrum for the successful deployment of 5G, Wireless GIGabit (WiGig) and high-altitude platform station (HAPS) in their respective countries. This will enable governments to develop a balanced connectivity agenda that:

  • Creates an open and competitive broadband market supported by policies that remove obstacles to provide Internet access;
  • Makes the required licensed and unlicensed spectrum available for high speed broadband access for all which will result in greater reuse of spectrum at lower costs;
  • Revises approaches to spectrum use that stimulates the deployment of different technologies.

The current business model for building individual networks – using licensed and unlicensed spectrum, works well where there is strong demand and high population density. This model does not work well in low population density areas, which suggests that alternative business models such as spectrum and network sharing need to be considered. Additionally, cross sector synergies such as combining communications with energy provision – in light of the very low electrification levels in some regions of the world, should be examined.

Connecting the unconnected will give a strong boost to the delivery of the SDGs. Technology solutions that are being developed to address the digital divide need to be supported. This will require a concerted effort between industry and governments based on an open dialogue to ensure that the right mix of technologies and business models are deployed that will help solve our connectivity challenges.

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